Thursday, July 27, 2006

Omeljan Pritsak, a scholar of Ukrainian and Turkic studies, died May 29 of complications from heart disease at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He was 87.

A historian and linguist, Mr. Pritsak maintained that Ukrainian studies were crucial to a true understanding of Western culture and history because Ukraine straddled the fault line between European and Eastern cultures.

Mr. Pritsak was born April 7, 1919 in Luka, Ukraine. He completed his secondary education at the Polish Gymnasium in Ternopil and his higher education — with a concentration in Ukrainian history and Turkic history and philology — at the University of Lviv and the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kiev.

Mr. Pritsak received a doctorate from the Universities of Berlin and Gottingen in 1948 and then taught at the University of Gottingen. In 1952, he became a docent and then professor of Turkology at the University of Hamburg, before teaching at Cambridge University, the universities of Krakow and Warsaw and Harvard University.

In 1961, Mr. Pritsak moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen, and became a professor of Turkology at the University of Washington. He joined Harvard as a professor of linguistics and Turkology in 1964.

From 1968 to 1974, Mr. Pritsak helped oversee the establishment of endowed chairs of Ukrainian history, philology and literature at Harvard, as well as the foundation of the university’s Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI).

Mr. Pritsak served as the institute’s first director for almost 20 years and was the first Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history, taking over the chair in 1975.

In 1977, he helped start the Harvard Ukrainian Studies journal, and also was instrumental in organizing weekly seminars, building up the Ukrainian library collections and making important works of the Ukrainian past available worldwide.

At Harvard, Mr. Pritsak quickly became known for his exuberance and was called the “the Tornado” by his staff. His protege and current associate director of HURI, Lubomyr Hayda, said that “his attitude was always one of ‘if that’s impossible, let’s do it.’”

In 1989, Mr. Pritsak retired from Harvard and became immersed in revitalizing higher education in the humanities in Ukraine. He pushed for the reintroduction of Eastern studies that had been eliminated in Ukraine by Joseph Stalin and in 1990, he founded the Ahatanhel Krymsky Institute of Oriental Studies in Kiev, with a branch in Crimea.

Mr. Pritsak was fluent in 12 languages and wrote more than 500 books, articles and scholarly works. He regularly was invited to the Vatican to brief Pope John Paul II on developments in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine.

Survivors include his wife, Larysa Hvozdik Pritsak of Wellesley, Mass.; a daughter from his first marriage, Irene Pritsak of Rollinsville, Colo.; and two grandchildren. His first wife, Nina Moldenhauer Pritsak, died in 1996.

A memorial service is planned at Harvard in October. Memorial donations can be made to the publications fund of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, with checks made out to the Ukrainian Studies Fund, 1583 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.

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